There are several different types of sexual contact that are labelled as incest: father-daughter, stepfather-daughter, father-son, stepfather-son, mother-son, stepmother-son, mother-daughter, and stepmother-daughter. Those are all considered parental incest. The father-daughter type has garnered the most attention and is the most frequently reported.
There is another category of incest: sibling. Sibling incest can occur
between brother sister, brother-brother, and sister-sister. The most common
category is brother-sister. When discussing sibling incest, incest shall be
defined as "sexually oriented physical contact between family members which
must be kept secret...[such] incest can range from inappropriate touching or
fondling to intercourse."
Although this paper is focusing on sibling incest, I will on occasion
insert some information about incest in general. The impact and occurrence
rate of sibling incest are two topics that are in debate by professionals.
Historically, sibling incest was seen as less traumatic than adult-child
incest. That belief is beginning to shatter. Also, the rate of sibling
incest (brother-sister) is estimated to be "at least five times higher than
parent child incest"
The literature suggests that the main reason sibling incest is seen as less traumatic than parent child incest is because no generational boundary is violated. By believing that the incest is not traumatic, or not serious, it leads to the incest not being recognized in females who seek professional counseling help. When the trauma is not recognized or perceived to be serious, it can further damage the psyche of the female victim.
Although not all sibling incest occurs with one aggressor and one victim,
the effects can be just as damaging. Some sibling incest can occur out of a
set of needs that both children have, such as: "a desire for affiliation
and affection; a combating of loneliness, depression, and a sense of
isolation; and a discharging of anxiety and tension due to stress."
There are notions that some brother-sister incest can be "positive" and result in a better sexual self image later in life.
"...prevailing notions suggest that if the experience occurs between young age-mates, if there is no betrayal of trust between the children, if it is a result of natural curiosity and experimentation, and if children are not traumatized by disapproving adults who discover their activity, the experience can be 'just another part of growing up'."
(Forward & Buck, 1978, p. 85) (Canavan, 1992)
I would claim that the above notion is sensible only when applying it to the traditional "playing doctor" games of very young children of the same age. But, I do not believe that it is sensible when applied too sibling incest between a several year older brother and younger sister.
Canavan lists six aspects, based on a compilation of existing literature,
that can show that the sibling incest is more than just "normal sex
exploration." The first is - enforced secrecy. "...sexualized contact
which is kept secret due to fear, coercion, or threat cannot be
considered harmless sex play."
The secrecy aspect of sibling incest is very damaging to the female involved. The female feels guilt and shame. She feels that she has to remain silent about what happened and worse, she will often feel that she was to blame for what happened to her.
The second aspect is the power differentials between the brother and the sister. Age is not the only determination of power. Often, the mere fact of the brother being male and the sister being female is enough to give the brother power over the sister. That sounds simplistic but males have always held traditional power over females. Whether the sister responds to the social pressure of males over females or whether she sees that power reflected in her family structure does not matter. If she feels powerless or threatened, she just might submit "to survive."
A younger female sibling may initially agree with her brother's incestuous attentions "to fool around," yet, that does not mean that consent was given. Although a sibling cooperated does not suggest that they understood the nature of sexual interaction. Significantly, a younger female sibling's consent to her brother's contact may suggest that she has been sexually abused earlier in her life.
The third aspect is the influence on sexual development. I, personally, find this aspect to be the most distasteful and the most damaging to the female. When the female's first sexual experience is with an older brother in a coercive, secret, powerless, guilt ridden atmosphere, that can form an imprint on her that can inhibit the development of a normal sexual identity. Guilt and shame can become identified with sexuality thus producing sexual dysfunctions ranging from painful intercourse to anxiety attacks to the abstinence of sex altogether.
The fourth aspect is individual aftereffects. Although these aftereffects can vary from individual to individual there are some that seem most common.
"Long-term effects on the individual include: shattered trust of brothers and men in general; never marrying or making poor choices in marriage; poor self-concept; sexual promiscuity and using sex as the only way to relate to men; a tendency toward revictimization, sexual and otherwise; substance abuse; depression and other psychiatric symptoms such as dissociative experiences or loss of memory for large periods of the past; confusion between intimacy and sexuality; and a lack of support from family and society, who tend to blame the victim
(Cole, 1982; Higgs, Canavan, & Meyer, 1992; Russell, 1986)."
Incestuous abuse can range from unwanted/nonforceful kissing to forcible rape. Therefore, there is a wide range of severity. There are multiple studies that are contradictory in their determinations of whether the severity of the abuse coincides equally with the trauma reported by the victim.
After reviewing several different studies, I am confused whether a
correct answer exists. Browne and Finkelhor (1985) report on several
studies that claim that there is no "clear differentiation between the
effects of genital fondling and intercourse (e.g., Anderson, Bach, and
Griffith 1981; Fromuth 1983; and Tufts New England Medical Center 1984)."
The studies done by Russell first seem to show a linear link between severity and trauma and between duration and trauma. After examining her studies, Russell indicates that although intuitively these factors should have a linear correlation they often do not because of the amount of significant variables that can be present.
The link between duration and trauma often has to deal with the type of
incest perpetrator. The correlation between severity and trauma also did
not create a perfect linear match, but, "the distinction between intercourse
and genital foundling was important in predicting the degree of trauma
reported by incest victims."
One very interesting fact that Russell's survey found was "In cases where some positive feelings or ambivalence were present, the trauma was often greater than when the experience was totally unwanted." That finding contradicts those that believe brother sister incest can be discounted as a non abusive, non-harmful "playing doctor" activity.
The fifth aspect is disturbance in family dynamics. Smith and Israel (1987) found that the following family dynamics were involved in their study of 25 cases of sibling incest.
"(a) parents who were distant and inaccessible physically and/or emotionally and whose lack of supervision of the children may have allowed childish playfulness to result in sexual relationships; (b) parents' stimulation of home sexual climate through visible sexual behavior, sexual contact with children, "seductive" behavior, or repressed sexuality which, paradoxically, may have increased children's interest in the forbidden; and (c) family secrets, particularly around extramarital affairs."
However, the above is not to be considered an absolute list of all family styles where sibling incest has occurred.
The sixth aspect is gender-based differences in relationship styles. It is well known that in our society, men are taught to be self-reliant and girls are taught to be nurturing and protective. Females who have been victims of incest may find it hard to admit the abuse for fear of "destroying" the family. Such fear only reinforces the secrecy of the abuse, making the psychological stress on the female that much stronger.
Although this paper is concentrating on the effects of incest on females, I do want to point out that both the brother and the sister experience the isolation, secrecy, shame, and anger that this behavior produces. Yet, I do not wish to portray because the brother has those emotions as an excuse for the behavior, for it is not.
I think the statement Canavan, Meyer and Higgs make in their paper sums up
the argument of whether sibling incest is psychologically damaging to the
female child involved. "None of us has had clinical contact with women
reporting sibling incest of a benign or positive nature." (Canavan, 1992)
Also, Russell writes "our survey data show that the notion that brother-sister
incest is usually a harmless, mutual interaction is seriously wrong."
I conducted three informal interviews with very close, good friends of mine who are all survivors of incest. They agreed that I could use their experiences and feelings for my paper as long as their names remained confidential. I do not presume to draw any serious clinical conclusions from these interviews rather I use them to illustrate the point that I have tried to make in this paper. That point being sibling incest is indeed as damaging as adult incest and deserves to be recognized as a severe problem so proper treatment and preventive strategies can be formulated.
Lisa is currently 27 years old. She is the only daughter in the family. She has one younger brother. She isn't sure when exactly the abuse began but can figure out that it was after a family relocation. She can only pinpoint that the abuse began after she was eight and stopped in her mid-teens. The incest was father-daughter. She moved quickly out of the family home shortly after graduation from high school. She then proceeded to have a problem with drug abuse by stealing prescription drugs from a pharmacy.
She sought psychiatric treatment for her problems but stopped the sessions due to her feelings that it was useless. She is consistently attracted sexually to older men (approximately 20 years, give or take a year, older than she) and has a hard time not being promiscuous with them. She has an almost obsessive need to get married and be in love. She has never told her mother about the abuse and lacks intention of ever doing so. She could barely talk about it with me and would not share details of what her father did to her. She continues to have strong episodes of depression and has tried to commit suicide in the past.
Alice is also currently 27 years old. She has one sister and one half-sister, both older. She was abused by her uncle and her father as a small child of around five up to around 12 or 13. She claims to have always remembered the abuse by her uncle but the more intense memories didn't come out until she entered therapy at the age of 24. She suffers from self-mutilating desires that she mainly controls but occasionally relapses. During her therapy sessions she remembered the abuse by her father. The uncle's abuse ranged from touching to rape. Her father was a "looker." He would watch Alice and her sister in the bathroom and try to see them naked. Alice is not sure whether her father actually ever physically touched her.
Alice remembers being in therapy earlier in her life and that the therapist took advantage of her in a sexual way. She has a very long pattern of sexual abuse by the men in her life. Alice has only recently, in the last three or so years, grown out of her behavior of being extremely promiscuous and using illegal drugs. She is also a recovering alcoholic. She also struggles with extreme confidence problems and insecurities. She has fought her memories valiantly using professional therapy. She is now married with a child. Her life seems to be going well now but she continues to have mood swings and strong depressions. She also has attempted suicide in the past. She has learned not to be ashamed of what was forced upon her and is the most healed of the three I interviewed.
Pat is also currently 27 years old. She is the only daughter of the family. Her older brother was her abuser. She is not absolutely certain how old she was when the abuse first occurred but she believes it to have happened the summer between 8th and 9th grades when she was 14. Her brother was 17 at the time.
She remembers herself as a happy, normal, active teenager although very shy toward boys. She is very shameful about the incidences with her brother and although she intellectually knows it wasn't her fault, emotionally she isn't sure. She feels very guilty for having altered her mother's relationship with her brother because at the age of 25 she told her mom what had happened. Pat had always remembered the abuse but only started to internalize the facts when she entered group counseling. She is obsessed with trying to figure out why, as a child, she allowed her brother to do what he did to her.
As a 17 or 18 year old, her mother put her into therapy with a psychiatrist because she wanted to know why her daughter had gotten so fat. Pat said she knew why but she couldn't then share it with the therapist. Pat was a normal sized child before the abuse but rapidly became obese during her high school years and later even more while in college. The sessions were ended when Pat could do nothing but cry during the sessions.
Pat has had no sexual contact with any males since the abuse occurred.
She does not date although she is obsessed with sexual thoughts. She has
some strong obsessive-compulsive tendencies and is prone to depression. She
continues in self-mutilating behavior to this day.
Although two of the women interviewed were victims of adult-child incest and only one was a victim of sibling incest, I believe they were all useful in my education and portrayal of the problem. While discussing their feelings about the incidents, I did not perceive any pronounced difference in the feelings of shame involved. But, the level of guilt in the sibling incest survivor was more pronounced. I think Pat's therapist missed a diagnosis I think I would have at least suspected. Pat relayed to me that the therapist never asked whether she was being or had been abused. If the therapist had, perhaps Pat wouldn't still be dealing with the trauma.
All three indicated problems with relationships with men as adults. All
three have sought treatment for their problems, relating back to the idea
that nobody seeks treatment for something unless it has harmed or
traumatized them. Their symptoms, as survivors of incest, are incredibly
similar so how can professionals continue to see sibling incest as
non-traumatic or even less traumatic than adult-child? I think that
presumption does a grave disservice to the survivors of such a psychologically
Butler, Sandra (1978). Conspiracy of Silence - The Trauma of Incest. New Glide Publications: San Francisco.
Canavan, Margaret M., Meyer, Walter J. III, and Higgs, Deborah C. (1992). The Female Experience of Sibling Incest. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 129-142.
Larson, Lisa R. (1993). Betrayal and Repetition: Understanding Aggression in Sexually Abused Girls. Clinical Social Work Journal. 137-149.
Loredo, C. (1982). Sibling incest. In S. Sgroi (Ed.), Handbook of clinical intervention in child sexual abuse (pp. 177-189). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.
Ramsey, Pamela (1994). Interview with Lisa.
Ramsey, Pamela (1994). Interview with Alice.
Ramsey, Pamela (1994). Interview with Pat.
Russell, Diana E.H. (1986). The Secret Trauma. Basic Books: New York.